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Assessing Hybrid and Electric Vehicle Repair

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According to a recent J.D. Power and Associates forecast, hybrid vehicles will make up nearly 10 percent of the vehicle market share in the U.S. in 2015. Hybrid technology is also rapidly advancing, making it more affordable and simpler to work on than most shop owners think. What’s more, shops that are equipped and ready to repair hybrid vehicles today will have the upper hand as the market grows, says Mark Quarto. 

As chief technical officer at Automotive Research & Design, Quarto has been engineering, managing and teaching electric and hybrid electric vehicle systems for more than 25 years. Quarto recently discussed what shop owners need to do to equip their shops to repair hybrid vehicles.

What kind of equipment will shops need to repair and work on hybrid/electric vehicles?

There are a number of products and equipment that shops will need. The first thing is battery test equipment. It’s unique because it follows testing standards for HEV batteries, which is unlike a lot of the other equipment out there today. 

What this does for the aftermarket is give shops the ability to test and charge batteries to some type of standard. There is a specified way to test and charge batteries, whether they are nickel metal hydride or lithium ion batteries. It is unique that we try to hold to standards or recommended practices for testing and charging the batteries. We have a unit that does that and we can create the hardware and the software controls so that it’s an affordable, commercially viable piece of equipment for any of our aftermarket customers. 

Another piece of equipment that we co-developed with ALL-TEST Pro is an electric motor generator test unit. It is the only one like it in the world that will test motors and generators without rotating the motor or generator. It will do a complete battery of tests on the motors/generators. This piece of equipment was designed for field use. Techs can use it in the field and it provides comprehensive data collection. They can then analyze that data and know the condition and state of health of the motors and generators. 

There are also some unique ways of diagnosing the power inverter in HEVs and also the DC-to-DC converter. Although we don’t make equipment to test those two, we use existing field testing equipment and then some techniques to be able to determine the state of health of the power converter and DC-to-DC converter.

Can you explain how battery conditioning works?

Battery conditioning is a method of increasing the capacity of a nickel metal hydride battery module or battery cell. Conditioning allows you to increase the capacity of the cells inside the battery module so that it doesn’t need to be replaced. This is a way to reuse the technology that’s in the car without having to go through a replacement of the battery module. 

A common theme is that a customer will come in, and even though an indicator light wasn’t on, tell us that their car is only getting 35 miles per gallon and it used to get 49. The largest indicator that there’s an issue with the battery pack or degrading capacity is when there is a decrease in mileage. The battery pack and the engine share the responsibilities of supplying energy to the vehicle, and that results in lower fuel economy. By conditioning or rebuilding the battery, we can typically get the vehicle back up to mid- to high-40s again in fuel economy. We have seen that over and over again with customers. 

“Not only is it better for the environment and the business, it’s better for the customer because the cost is lower.”

 

—Mark Quarto of Automotive Research & Design on reconditioning rather than replacing a battery

What is the cost to replace versus rebuild the battery pack?

If you want to get a battery pack conditioned or rebuilt, it’s around $1,500–$1,800, including labor. With a new battery pack, you’re into somewhere around $3,500–$4,000. The conditioning and rebuilding is a much better alternative, cost-wise, for the customer. 

That’s what makes it attractive: You can build capacity back into the battery again. We are able to reuse most, if not all, of the battery. Not only is it better for the environment and the business, it’s better for the customer because the cost is lower. You’re using what the customer already has—the existing battery technology—and exercising that through the conditioning process. That’s where the real benefit is: The customer doesn’t have to buy any additional hardware. 

How will hybrids affect the repair industry? What kind of impact or opportunity is there?

Hybrids make up 3.5–4 percent of the market today. That’s changing quickly. Back in 2002, there were only two hybrid models being sold. As of this year, there are 71 models of hybrids (not including electric). That number is going to grow to more than 100 in the next couple of years. The entire economy of the automotive market is shifting towards HEV and fuel cell. 

For the aftermarket, it’s a great time to get in because the out-of-warranty customer is looking for a place to take their vehicles; many of them don’t want to go back to the dealers. It permits an aftermarket company to get into the business of HEV diagnostic and service by providing an alternative to the dealer. 

It’s wide open right now. If you want to get into it, now’s the time to get into it. Five years from now, there’s going to be a flood of aftermarket shops wanting to get into it. Those who have gotten into it will already be established. You get in on the ground floor prior to the whole market busting open and you’ll already be a known quantity to the aftermarket customer for HEV diagnostic and repair.  

It’s very inexpensive to get into this right now. I’m not sure if it’s going to be like that in the future. There are a lot of people now who want to get into this, so I expect the cost will go up. 

Can the aftermarket use these services to enhance repair experiences and capture customer loyalty? 

It absolutely is because the conditioning process is not currently utilized at the OEM dealer. They are currently not performing any conditioning; they just replace batteries. Quite honestly, in the aftermarket, it’s often the same way. If the customer goes to an aftermarket shop, they are replacing batteries with rebuilt modules or new batteries. 

Services like battery reconditioning gives the customer another inexpensive alternative to battery repair. We’ve had cars out there running for years after being conditioned. In fact, we are working with a cab company in Wisconsin to recondition their batteries. 

We selected one of the vehicles in their fleet that had been conditioned and brought it back in after two years. The battery looked phenomenal, even though an additional 80,000 miles were put on it. 

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